15 April 2020

Transparency key to controlling virus: Swan

Communicable Disease Communication COVID-19 Government

Science journalists who are interpreting and relaying COVID-19 information to the public are being criticised for breaking news about the pandemic before Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Chief Medical Officer Dr Brendan Murphy.

One of the front-runners of this scrutiny has been Dr Norman Swan, physician and broadcaster, who started a podcast dedicated to following pandemic developments in early March.

Dr Swan told The Medical Republic that when he started Coronacast for the ABC, he didn’t quite appreciate he was walking into a vacuum and talking to millions of people who didn’t know anything at all about the virus.

“What I was doing wasn’t necessarily appreciated by the federal government,” he said.

Dr Swan was slammed by News Corp Australia for questioning the advice of public health officials and statements from various government committees on how to stop the spread of the virus.

But Dr Swan says asking questions and holding the government to account remains a critical part of his job as a journalist.

“As someone who has been a medical journalist for many years, I understand how to read scientific evidence and translate it for the public,” he said.

“The feedback from the federal government, indirectly not directly, has been that I’ve been getting ahead of them, and they find that an uncomfortable place to be.

“What the community really wants is somebody to tell them what is going on, to explain the statistics, explain this disease as much as we know, and tell them it’s strange – not treat them like idiots.”

At the start of the pandemic, Dr Swan said the government was seen to be taking an overly cautious approach in an effort to avoid public panic.

But when a government is telling everyone not to worry, it tends to create the opposite reaction.

“Transparency is what’s needed, and I think they are much better now than they were,” Dr Swan said.

It was only a few weeks ago that the government was still condoning gathering for large sporting matches, including the Melbourne Grand Prix.

These events were only cancelled after significant pressure from health professionals who said it would not be wise for them to proceed.

But one debate that is continuing is whether the public should be privy to all the scientific data which is informing government decisions during the pandemic.

“I think is very unfair to the general community to just dump raw data without some interpretation and therefore I think that we should be transparent about the decisions we’re making, we should be transparent about the options, and why we’ve chosen which option, and allow debate,” Dr Swan said.

The pandemic has not only been a difficult health crisis to control, but also one forcing political decisions that compromise how people live, work and socialise.

In Dr Swan’s opinion, the earlier a government decides to be transparent about those decisions, the more likely the public will be to follow the health advice.

“The experts in this area are saying that it is possible to lay out a path to the public and say ‘Look, we think by doing X, Y, and Z, and by you doing your job, that we can get down to single digit growth rates, and at that point, we think that we can control this epidemic pretty well,’” he said.

It was vital for the public to understand the decision-making behind the public health guidelines for COVID-19 so that they continue to follow the guidelines of social distancing and understand the burden of their individual actions on the unfolding situation, Dr Swan said.

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